Malta: A Beacon of Hope
Q&A with Pierre Clive Agius, Ambassador of Malta
Name: Pierre Clive Agius | Age: 50 | Hometown: Valletta, Malta
Ambassador to the U.S. since: March 2, 2016
Q: You’re a career diplomat — tell us a little bit about your background and career path.
I have always been very interested in world events and international relations. At the time I was graduating, Malta was starting to negotiate its accession to the EU and there were a lot of opportunities. One of them was to sit for the exam and join the foreign office in Malta. And I took it extremely seriously. In the meantime I did another degree in environmental management, but I really wanted to get into the foreign office, so I did a master’s at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta. Since then I never looked back — I took it very, very seriously.
Q: Was there a particular moment or experience that made it clear to you that you wanted to work internationally?
I must have been around eight years old. I have an image in my mind of my father carrying me. We were in Valletta, the capital city of Malta, at the Grandmaster’s Palace, which is a huge, majestic Baroque building. On the façade, there are several marble plaques. One is of the independence of Malta, one is when Malta became a republic, but there is one which has always inspired me and made me dream. This is the scroll of President Roosevelt, who came to Malta after the Second World War.
Malta was the most bombed land in WWII. Very few people realize this. During WWII, Malta was the last hope for the south of Europe. Malta never surrendered and resisted very strongly. Now Roosevelt, when he came to Malta to meet with Churchill, before meeting with Stalin at the Yalta Conference, he was so impressed by the sheer devastation and the resistance of the Maltese that he sent this very heart-warming scroll, which is inscribed on the plaque on the facade of the Grandmaster’s Palace where he defines Malta as “a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.”
I remember my father holding me there and explaining the history of Malta. And telling me that although Malta is very small, it played a very determined role over and again throughout the ages. This stayed in my mind. My father is no longer here, but this was the experience that came into my my mind when I met with President Obama. I thought, “My God, this must have been inspired.” I thought about if my father would have been here while I was presenting my credentials to the ultimate country in the world. So this must have been the experience that launched my interest and molded me to be more interested in history and the place of Malta in the world.
Q: This is your first posting in Washington. How have you liked it so far?
It’s my first posting in Washington and it’s actually my first posting outside of Europe. It is amazing. It’s overwhelming. It is a constant battle — not of prioritization — but of prioritizing the prioritization. It is truly spectacular.
I have discovered things here that I never knew existed. For example, the first person to ever claim independence for Malta was Abraham Lincoln. And I discovered it here, at the Library of Congress. This was 100 years before the Maltese dreamt independence for themselves! Something else I learned — the Maltese joined the French and fought for independence of America. Two-hundred Maltese came and fought in the battle of Chesapeake and they distinguished themselves and left their mark. The founder of the liberty bell — John Pass (Giovanni Pace) — was born in Malta. So you see, a small country, so small that often it is not even put on maps, and yet you see a small fingerprint in the making of this great and beautiful nation.
Q: Being in Washington you have the opportunity to meet regularly with all 28 EU member state ambassadors, how has that been?
Here in Washington we’re extremely lucky because you see more what Europe is outside of Europe than in Europe itself. Sitting around the table at our monthly HOM (Heads of Missions) breakfast chaired by our EU ambassador David O’Sullivan, you feel very much at home. In a way it reflects our ministers and our heads of states meeting in Brussels for a council. You really feel like you’re coming home here.
And when we go to a meeting at the delegation, the fact that you’re going there and there’s only one flag — the European flag — you feel like it’s a sort of homecoming.
This is very powerful for someone European, this is really truly powerful. And you see this only outside of the EU. Inside the EU this doesn’t exist. When you’re on a posting in the EU, the dynamics are different. It’s completely different and it’s something that I think should be given more visibility, because it really spells Europe. It really shows how far Europe has come.
Q: What is your favorite part of the job?
I love the public and love meeting people. You see, what is really and truly satisfying is when you start from zero. When you approach someone for the first time and start explaining and you manage to not just convince them to see your point of view, but to genuinely understand what our issues are. And suddenly they accept the position because they understand that it would be otherwise, that it would really hurt Valletta or Malta. That is extremely satisfying — when you communicate, when you have a dialogue. When you have started from zero and they have understood you and understood the concerns of Malta.
Likewise, it’s satisfying is when you meet with the general public. I recall last May we had the EU Open House* of the EU member states. We received more than 2,500 visitors. For a small country — that’s impressive. When you start seeing the people relating, wanting to know more, and they start to understand a bit more about Malta, they become curious, that is so gratifying. I find this terribly satisfying to be in contact with the public and to discuss history, culture, and so forth. This is the nicest part.
The thing I have to withstand most and I find less interesting is doing certain routine meetings where we have nothing really to contribute, but we have to listen and take notes. This tends to be a bit of a challenge. Another issue I can do less with are the dinners and lunches. Here in DC, more than in other postings I had, discussing around a table with food on the table is very important. So this has to be managed because food is abundant here. If I have a lunch, I try to skip breakfast or dinner.
Q: What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as ambassador?
For a Maltese diplomat, the challenges are huge. It has to do with the size of our country and the availability of resources. Our embassies tend to be small, so we have to work from very early in the morning until very late at night. We have to be well-rounded and know what is happening all the time. We have to be inventive and creative.
The challenge of resources — this is an immediate challenge. The challenge to know what’s happening and how to react to what’s happening, to send timely information back home, to understand how decisions made here can have an effect on Malta — that is a permanent challenge. You can’t let your guard down for a moment. I need to have a strong sense of judgment — which meeting to cover rather than another one, whom to contact rather than others, because often we have one shot.
As of January 1, 2017, Malta will have the presidency of the Council of the Union. You will see that Malta has to pull all its weight permanently and constantly to do its job. History has shown that whenever there was need for Malta, Malta stood up and did what it had to do. As recently as when there were the conflicts in Tripoli, Malta had to literally open its skies to defend other people and to save many foreigners. Malta was the evacuation point for all foreigners in North Africa. I consider myself as working in permanent crisis management conditions.
Q: If you could only pick one thing to share with Americans about Malta, what would it be?
It would be our history, definitely. Every time I meet Americans, they always bring up the subject of the history of Malta. There is a certain fascination. They love it, they admire it, and through history you start connecting so many dots, and then the chemistry changes. It becomes a relationship of affection towards each other’s countries.
Q: Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to your younger self — say when you started your first post in Paris?
I think being a diplomat is the best job in the world, first of all. You get chances to interact with the world which you would otherwise not get. My advice is, always go for it.
Listen to everyone who tries to give you advice, but make your own decisions. Be your own judge. And in 99% of the cases you’ll find that your judgment is correct.
It is spectacular how the world opens up to you, how people open up. They want to learn. You’ll find a lot of affection, a lot of love, just don’t be afraid. Go for it.
It’s the most fascinating job. Believe me, it’s not the conditions. It’s meeting people, it’s what you learn, it’s what you discover. It would have not been possible for me to be the man I am today without these opportunities. And also to know that the country has trusted you with the ultimate job to represent it. To present and explain its concerns, but also its ambitions, its achievements.
Q: What is something quirky about you that people might be amused to learn?
I follow an extreme routine. I want things on schedule, I want organization, I want to see things in their own place. This is something which I insist on all the time. My staff — they have to learn this. Wherever I go, I need to have appointments prepared in a certain way, I want things prepared and filed according to my specifications, etc. And I follow a strict routine. If I don’t have a routine, it does not make me feel that well. It’s an advantage in a way, but then the issue I have to struggle with is not to become subject of the routine. Ideally, the routine is subject to me, but often I find myself that I might become subject to that routine.
I also wear the same thing. I have the same brand of suits, the same colors of ties. I have three colors of ties and it’s extremely rare that I divert from these colors. Of course, it’s a problem because wherever I go one of the gifts you get as an ambassador is a tie, which does not fit my wardrobe. See, these are my quirks. They make me feel good, and in control. At least, this is one part of my life that I can control. I cannot control the other 99% of things.
Q: So what is your routine typically?
I usually am on my feet at a quarter to six, by 6:30am I’m ready to go. By quarter to seven I’m at the office. I have to clear emails that came from Malta until 8:30am when the staff comes so that I’ve answered at least the emails that came through the night when it was daytime in Malta, and I’m prepared for my appointments. I go through my list and delegate the work. I’ll see if I have any lunches and try to control my food intake. The afternoon I leave for my strategic planning. I also try to leave a chunk of the day for my family and my mother in Malta — she’s 84 years old. I have to dedicate time to her. This is one of the drawbacks crossing the Atlantic — you have a very limited window when you can contact people on the other side because of the time difference. I try to resist the urge to look at the phone and emails after 9pm. I try…but I don’t always succeed. After 9pm I to try to wipe my mind and relax.
Q: What do you like to do to relax in your free time?
I love cycling. I love theater a lot. Music.
Q: Do you play any instruments or sing?
No, that’s my biggest regret. I love good music that puts me in a good mood. My biggest regret is that I don’t have a musical ear. My daughters, both of them, have extremely good musical ears. Whenever I try to accompany music, the reaction is not very good.
Q: What is your favorite music?
I was born in ’65 and although I was exposed to classical music and opera at home, deep down I still consider myself a West Coast rock person — Eagles, Hotel California, Stairway to Heaven. That’s my weekday music. When it comes to operas, Puccini is my favorite composer. Gershwin, jazz of course. Again, me and schedules. During the week I want rock. Then on Saturday evening, I want jazz. On Sunday morning — I’ll go for big American songbooks. Starting Sunday afternoon I want classical music or opera. So you see, these are my quirks!
Q: If you were not an ambassador or in the Foreign Service, what would you be?
A teacher. I love the classroom, I still love it. I try to dedicate part of my outreach efforts to schools — more than universities. I was an Italian teacher for a few years and I think I never left the classroom, and this is where it comes from.
There is something in common between being a diplomat and a teacher — both are missions. A teacher is a vocation plus a mission. I consider myself a missionary of my country. I have to go and preach about my country, and in a way, convert others towards an understanding of the concerns of my country.
Diplomacy is not fighting. Diplomacy is explaining. And here in the U.S. especially I am so positively surprised to find so much willingness to engage in understanding, to discuss and find solutions. This is remarkable. It’s a reflection on the American mentality of openness. This is why it is the country it is today — it is a leader. It’s a leader because it believes in dialogue and wants to understand.
It really commits itself and they try their best to accommodate the needs of other countries. I’m really blown away.
Q: What do you like most about living in DC?
The weather! Especially the heat. For me, it’s like being at home. It’s too much like being at home. It’s actually so good that it’s bad. At home in the summer, we start earlier — at 7:30am and finish by 1:30pm — so that we can go to the beach and have a nice siesta. Having the same weather conditions here in summer but having to work in the afternoon until early evening…I feel it’s a bit unfair. I find DC to be very user-friendly, an open city. The museums are wonderful and free of charge. It’s wonderful, truly wonderful.
Q: What would you say you are you most proud of?
I look at my children and they grew up alone…I have a bit of guilt there. I was very much absent because I work long hours and I see them mostly on the weekends. I was not always there to help them with their homework and studying, but my wife was there all the time. For their age, they’re very accomplished. I see the way they express themselves. I see their care, even for animals…I’m very proud of them.
At the same time, I’m very proud of Malta. My family was a family of extremely modest means. And yet I became an ambassador. And have been given so many opportunities. I’m here in Washington, one of the ultimate places for a diplomat. As I look back, Malta gave me this chance.
We don’t have a system where the children follow the father — this is not the case in Malta — you have to take an extremely rigorous exam. So really, Malta gave me this chance.
I’m proud of what we did with Malta. Malta is an island with no natural resources at all — the only natural resource is our weather, and being in the middle of the Mediterranean. We have nothing whatsoever, just human resources, but you see we have always had a stable and strong democracy. Our standards of living are comparable to the best in the Western world. We inherited Malta without an economy and had to create an industry, a tourism industry. The filming industry…if you look at Gladiator, Troy, these are Maltese productions. They were produced in Malta.
We have very high quality healthcare, rivaling some of the best in the world. Our investment in education and advances in research. When you see what we did out of a country in 50 years…it is remarkable. When we look at Malta today — we have full employment, a Maltese can speak from 2–3 languages. If you look at other countries in the same situation, we have outperformed many others. And all this is thanks to the Maltese. We have made something of our country. I am proud that I’m Maltese.
Q: What advice would you give to young people today?
I want to dedicate this to Europe. I saw the face of Malta change over the past ten years since Malta joined the EU. Malta has changed and changed for the better…to almost unrecognizable levels. And certainly this is thanks to Europe.
What we’re hearing about Europe, that Europe is divided, it’s only relative. It’s not the complete truth. Look at where Europe is today. Look at the East of Europe. My last posting was in Poland. Poland is so free and unless you are told that 25 years ago it belonged to a bloc, you would not believe it. It’s as if we were always there. We forgot the past. And now we are becoming a bit selfish. We are a victim of our success, and it should not be like this.
This is the advice I would give to our younger generations: to dream and to dream big for Europe. Because we need these dreams. We have to change our language about Europe and I think we need to start recognizing what Europe has done for us. We are closer than ever and I am sure that no one would want to return to what we were before we joined Europe.
Brussels is not Europe. Europe is my hometown. Europe is a little village in The Netherlands. Europe is what we want out of it. Ultimately, we are around the table. Ultimately we decide what we want out of Europe. So rather than say, we have to do this because of Brussels, let’s start saying, let’s do this because this is in our common interest.
And borrowing from a personality I have admired since I was a little kid, John F. Kennedy, who said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It’s time that Europeans see not what we can get, but what we can give to Europe. This is the advice I can give to the younger European generations.
I mention this because I think it’s very pertinent, the image we Europeans have of ourselves lacks a bit of self-confidence. But when you look at our history, our rich cultures, our prosperity, even our standards of living, they are unique…they are the top of the world. They are unrivaled. So we should be very grateful and recognize our achievements and not be doubtful. I tell my children that they should think of themselves as Europeans. They will always be Maltese, but they belong to the European Union. Yes, Malta certainly, but Malta in Europe…and our belongingness. Again, I’m so, so proud of the European Union.
A small country the size of Malta at the table among the biggest countries in the world. I recalled instances where I was present to meetings and they valued the opinions of Malta. Not just as an official exercise. The views of Malta were counted and taken into the consideration. The fact that the Commission encouraged us to recognize the Maltese language as an official language of the European Union…it is truly remarkable and indicative of how much attention each and every EU member state is given.
(*) EU Open House: a Saturday in May when all 28 EU Member States embassies and the EU Delegation open their doors to the public.
This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.